Faces of forgiveness: lessons learned in Rwanda As a recipient of the Egan Journalism Fellowship, I recently had the amazing opportunity to travel with Catholic Relief Services to Rwanda. Our trip occurred on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and afforded us the opportunity to see post-genocidal developments in Rwanda as well as get a front row perspective on CRS’ work in this amazing country.

I must admit that before winning the fellowship, my knowledge of Rwanda was embarrassingly limited. When the genocide, which killed over more than a half-million Rwandans, was perpetrated over the course of 100 days in 1994, I was a young mother with her second baby on the way.

While I studied and read up on the genocide and other historical and current-day developments in Rwanda, very little could have prepared me for the “real world” object lessons I would learn during my trip. 

First and foremost, I am convinced now more than ever that the work of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is both critically important and wholly effective. Along with our exposure to genocide memorials and our meetings with survivors, we witnessed CRS programs in agriculture, Church governance, microfinance and peace building. 

Ask me what I learned on this trip, and I will give you a laundry list of both facts and impressions. Near the top of my list is an increased amazement at the human capacity to forgive, even in the face of the most despicable acts possible. Throughout our time in Rwanda, we met face to face with people who had been personally impacted by the genocide. 

We visited two national Genocide memorials, at Kigali and at Murambi. In an effort to give some small glimpse into the loss of life, both memorials contain exposed bodies as well as artifacts owned by genocide victims. Standing amidst a room full of the corpses of young children gives you both a grief beyond understanding and a sense of conviction that each of us must rise up and act to avoid such unspeakable acts in the future.

Against this backdrop, we met with a few amazing groups of survivors. In Rugnago Parish in Huye, we held an intimate conversation with members of CRS’ Community Healing and Reconciliation Program. One after the next, standing in pairs, a genocide survivor who had lost his or her family and livelihood to mass murder and theft stood partnered with the perpetrator, or a relative of a perpetrator, who had killed their loved ones. Time after time, these pairs emotionally told both sides of their stories and finished with a message of renewed forgiveness and an embrace.

Another memorable moment of our trip took place in the district of Karmonyi amidst one-room houses in a farm field. With the sound of CRS-donated goats in the background, the widows of Karmonyi — women who lost their husbands to the Genocide — rose and shared their stories of forgiveness and survival. Somehow the citizens of Rwanda have found and polished the capacity to forgive and to move forward in peace, in the hope of something greater. 

Amidst the widows in the field that day was a matriarch, Immaculee, who clearly had the respect of the rest of the group. As I approached her to greet her, I noticed a broken plastic rosary hanging around her neck. Clearly a woman of faith, Immaculee grasped the beads as we prayed together, she in Kinyarwanda and I in broken English, holding back sobs. Here was a woman, likely 70 years old, who had encountered such loss as I could never begin to imagine. Yet she was able to smile and to recount her story. As we parted, I pulled from my backpack a favorite rosary, one purchased at the Vatican and blessed on the occasion of the beatification of Blessed John Paul II. With tears, I passed those beads to their new owner, Immaculee, asking her to pray for my family and for my own ability to forgive. 

While our languages kept us from comprehending each other’s exact phraseology, I am confident that Immaculee saw into my heart that morning and understood. The next time you feel yourself bearing resentment or unable to forgive a wrong perpetrated upon you, I ask you to join me in turning to the example of so many in Rwanda who have learned to not only reconcile, but indeed to thrive.

Our Lady, Mother of Forgiveness, Pray for Us.

To support the work of Catholic Relief Services, visit www.CatholicRelief.org.

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of www.CatholicMom.com and the author of A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms. Visit her at www.LisaHendey.com.